14 March, 2011

Austen's Performative Art

Part one of a series of readings of three different novels, examining a dichotomy between individual life and social life that is very much pertinent to my study of Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway.

Pride and Prejudice is renowned for Austen's brilliant use of a satirical narrative voice, but equally brilliant is her use of dialogue to force the analytical narrator out of the spotlight and allow the interaction of one or more characters to stand on its own. The following exchange between Elizabeth and Darcy at the Netherfield ball is entirely performative, yet conveys a complete depiction of the dramatic tension of the novel, elsewhere explained by the narrator.

“Are you consulting your own feelings in the present case, or do you imagine that you are gratifying mine?”

“Both,” replied Elizabeth archly; “for I have always seen a great similarity in the turn of our minds. We are each of an unsocial, taciturn disposition, unwilling to speak, unless we expect to say something that will amaze the whole room, and be handed down to posterity with all the eclat of a proverb.”

“This is no very striking resemblance of your own character, I am sure,” said he. “How near it may be to mine, I cannot pretend to say. You think it a faithful portrait undoubtedly.”

“I must not decide on my own performance.”

As in any well-crafted theatrical piece, Elizabeth's hostility to Darcy is here conveyed through phrasing and implication rather than through narrative comment, while Darcy's growing attraction is communicated through his even-tempered response. Darcy's ironic “imagine” conveys his still-lively pride (she is wrong, he believes), yet leaves open the possibility that Elizabeth's “mistakenness” is rooted in an honest desire to “gratify” his feelings. Elizabeth, meanwhile, by presenting her judgment as an observation on their “similarity,” cleverly manages to maintain basic courtesy while criticizing him severely. They are not really similar in this respect: no attentive reader would argue that Elizabeth is unsocial and taciturn. Darcy himself understands this clearly, and rejects it as “no very striking resemblance of [her] own character”; his earlier reluctance to take offense at Elizabeth, however, again leads him to assume that “[she] think[s] it a faithful portrait” of him.

Within these few lines, Austen is able to address in miniature one of central the ethical concerns of the novel. Whatever emotional tensions are at its root, the subject of the conversation is the relationship between character and personality as this relation affects the possibility of judging another. Darcy rightly cavils at Elizabeth's claim to know him well enough to paint a faithful portrait of him. Yet whereas Elizabeth speaks of “disposition,” a term referring to the sum of one's personal inclinations, Darcy insists on saying “character,” a term traditionally associated with the way conscious choice builds upon the foundation of innate personality. Elsewhere in the narrative, he admits Elizabeth's claim about his disposition: he does incline to being reserved around strangers. Yet despite using the term “disposition,” Elizabeth moves implicitly into a discussion of character, of what the person inclined to taciturnity will actually do in a social context, when she asserts that Darcy is “unwilling to speak, unless [he] say[s] something that will amaze the whole room.” Elizabeth's judgment is hasty of course: Darcy is not merely arrogant, and if he does at times act thus, he struggles against the tendency.

However, while Darcy urges a qualification to her claim, he feels that he “cannot pretend to say” whether it is an accurate description of his own character cannot without being just as arrogant as Elizabeth considers him. Ironically, Elizabeth's lighthearted reply that she is likewise unable to “decide on [her] own performance” reveals that her understanding of the extent self-knowledge is fundamentally similar to Darcy's. One can have an accurate idea of one's own disposition, but it is arrogant to assume perfect knowledge of one's character: the latter is a social fact, not the sole property of an individual. Correspondingly one may, if highly perceptive (like Elizabeth) have some idea of another's personality, but this idea must necessarily be extrapolated from the other's social presentation. Only when Elizabeth comes to a better understanding of Darcy's character will she understand that he is in disposition more than a taciturn, arrogant individual: he is kind and generous precisely because he has cultivated these elements of his disposition through his performance of good actions.

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